Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: Lacks the proper spirit

Ghost in the Shell (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, dramatic intensity and chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang

The tantalizing nature of identity — of soul —  has again become a hot sci-fi topic, particularly in the wake of HBO’s recent expansion of Michael Crichton’s Westworld concept.

After her cyborg body is slightly damaged during a skirmish with nasty assassins,
Major (Scarlett Johansson, right) patiently waits while new artificial skin is grafted onto
her left arm, listening as Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) reminds her that, cyber-
enhancements notwithstanding, she's not invulnerable.
Since art so often mirrors life, it’s tempting to relate the current revival to the rampant insecurity, paranoia and uncertainty sweeping our nation: the rising doubt over what it truly means to be “American.”

Be that as it may, this new Western adaptation of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is quite timely, although I can’t help wondering what took so long. Masamune Shirow’s original manga graphic novel debuted in 1989, followed quickly by several sequels, a wildly popular 1995 animé adaptation (and several big-screen follow-ups), and a 2002 animé TV show (again with several continuation series).

All of them explored and expanded upon Shirow’s thoughtful observations about social evolution and its philosophical consequences, and particularly the manner in which rapidly advancing technology affects our concepts of consciousness and humanity.

Director Rupert Sanders’ new live-action film covers the same high-falutin’ philosophical territory, but this ho-hum Jamie Moss/William Wheeler script mostly resurrects a question that nagged at me, back when Ghost first materialized: I’ve always wondered to what degree Shirow might have been influenced by Robert Ludlum.

Because there’s no question that the core storyline is a cyberpunk spin on Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, and the many books and films subsequently spawned by that 1980 novel.

Which explains why — despite this new film’s dazzling depiction of our mid-21st century future — the action-packed plot seems so familiar. To paraphrase a famous song from an equally famous musical, Looks: 10, originality: 3.

The story takes place in a Pan-Asian metropolis that feels like a cross between the cityscapes of Blade Runner and Minority Report: opulent high rises and corporate towers jostling for space alongside blocky apartment complexes whose futuristic lines cannot conceal the dilapidation that speaks of their overcrowded, working-class residents.

The most striking visuals are the massive holographic advertisements that fill every millimeter of available space: a shrewdly prophetic — and frankly terrifying — depiction of what we could expect, if the corporate thugs behind our already distracting LED billboards continue to bully (or bribe) city council members into compliance.

It’s a future where medical transplants have expanded to include bionic and cybernetic enhancements: where a new hand has the android strength of James Cameron’s Terminator, and where replacement eyes can “see” every wavelength from infra red to ultra violet, with X-ray vision thrown in for good measure.

Even in such surroundings, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an anomaly, and the first of her kind: a wholly artificial cyborg whose only human “remnant” is her brain. As a being thus impervious to pain — graced with amazing strength, stamina and speed, and even able to employ a “cloaking” mode that renders her invisible — she is the ideal super-soldier, and a highly valued member of the counter-cyberterrorist organization Public Security Section 9.

Major also is the darling of the massive Hanka Corp., whose smarmy CEO — Peter Ferdinando, as Cutter — envisions her as the prototype for an elite squad of enforcement soldiers. Hanka scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) veers toward the other extreme: She’s a compassionate humanist who cherishes Major, as something of a proto-daughter, who in turn cares deeply for the doctor as a surrogate mother.

Sector 9 is overseen by the venerable Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), who is linked to every member of his team via a telepathic-styled communications net, and thus is able to monitor up-to-the-second progress while they’re in the field. Daisuke always speaks in Japanese, and Kitano’s stoic, rigorously formal façade can’t quite conceal the wily resourcefulness of a fox. Clearly, he’s not a man to be crossed.

Major’s second-in-command is Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk), a hulking, tough-as-nails commando with an unexpected soft side, particularly when it comes to his constant companion. It’s a familiar dynamic, but Asbæk adds some welcome emotional gravitas to this high-tech tale: both with his worries about Major, and concerns about his own humanity slowly receding as inevitable field injuries prompt successive cyber replacements.

We don’t get to know any of the other team members very well, which is a shame (and neglectful scripting). The old-school, fully human Togusa (Chin Han) is notable for his suspicion of technology, and steadfast refusal to accept any cyber-enhancements. Ladriya (Danusia Samal) is memorable solely because she’s the team’s only other woman.

The others — Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere), Saito (Yutaka Izumihara) and Borma (Tawanda Manyimo) — do little beyond making the team look larger. They remain background blank slates.

The core plot kicks off with a series of savage attacks against high-ranking Hanka executives: raids that aren’t mere assassinations, but also involve hijacking their secrets and memories via the handy-dandy neural interfaces that so many people have in the back of the neck. These assaults are organized by the hooded Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who announces responsibility and warns that “all who stand with Hanka will die.”

The battle lines thus drawn, Major sees her mission quite clearly. But she’s also plagued by disconcerting images — flashbacks? — that manifest unexpectedly. Dr. Ouelet dismisses their significance; each manifestation is easily traced and deleted during routine brain scans. And yet, they persist...

Point being, of course, that many things aren’t what they seem, and Major has long taken too much for granted. At which point, we really slide into Jason Bourne territory.

Johansson is credible as a quick-thinking, almost unstoppable warrior: no surprise, since she’s had plenty of experience as the kick-ass Black Widow, in various Marvel superhero movies. But our interest in Major derives more from the vulnerability and despair that Johansson reveals beneath the tough exterior. One of the film’s most intriguing — and poignant — moments comes when Major visits a brothel, merely to run her fingers across a woman’s fully human face, while asking what each touch and sensation feels like.

Her genre cred notwithstanding, considerable fan hostility greeted the news of Johansson’s starring role, given the iconic character’s Japanese origins. The filmmakers attempted to justify this decision by making Hanka and Section 9 multi-national, with characters (and actors) hailing from France, England, China, New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore and, yes, Japan, along with numerous other countries.

Fair enough ... initially. But a third-act revelation regarding Major’s past can’t help calling attention to the awkwardness of Johansson’s casting, which reinforces the purely commercial reason behind it. Johansson can “open” a sci-fi action flick here in the States, a talent (sadly) not shared even by popular Japanese action actresses such as Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim).

Pitt oozes sinister menace as the lethal Kuze, a bestial rage machine with no apparent regard for human life. But his behavior shifts when in close proximity to Major, and Pitt gives this duality a fascinating touch: Kuze becomes childlike and oddly fragile.

The film’s stunning look comes courtesy of visual effects wizards Fiona Campbell Westgate and Guillaume Rocheron, with a significant real-world boost from production designer Jan Roelfs. This is, once again, world-building on a truly awesome scale. Editors Billy Rich and Neil Smith keep the pacing taut, and Jess Hall’s frequently gritty cinematography gives the many late-night tableaus the Blade Runner look. They got a lot on the screen, given the film’s comparatively modest $110 million budget.

On the other hand, Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell’s thunderously loud score is obnoxious, particularly with its frequent use of low-end synth elements that rattle our teeth.

One other problem is more serious, and irritatingly common with stories of this nature: Major is only as powerful, or as vulnerable, as she needs to be from one moment to the next. The film opens with her solo assault against multiple assassins invading a formal restaurant, in their pursuit of a Hanka exec: a melee that makes her seem lightning-fast, ferociously lethal, and all but invulnerable.

And yet a few scenes later, she’s easily overcome and handcuffed to a pole by just two guys, seemingly helpless against their giggling sadism. That’s just sloppy. And stupid.

Sanders’ handling of this live-action Ghost in the Shell tries hard to hit all the proper notes, blending the all-stops-out action with the essential explorations of humanity and soul; Major’s encounter with a figure from her (human) past is particularly poignant. But the balance doesn’t feel right, and the core story’s familiarity works against it, as does the script’s failure to flesh out more of the supporting roles.

By trying to be all things to all potential viewers — seven production companies (!) — this Ghost has lost the core Japanese spirit that gave Shirow’s original manga storyline much of its power. That’s pretty ironic, given the franchise’s focus on identity.

Factor all that with the aforementioned fan antipathy, and I’m not sure the film will live up to Paramount and DreamWorks’ high expectations. I certainly was disappointed.

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